US Election 2020: A Deep Dive Analysis
Author: Mohal Joshi
The past two US presidential elections (2016 & 2020) have been comfortable wins (in terms of electoral college) for Trump: 2016 & Biden: 2020 with 306 Electoral votes each (270 required for a majority).
However, these resounding Electoral college victories 4 years apart belie the fact that we have witnessed in a sense the closest ever back to back electoral victories in US presidential elections history.
Hillary in 2016 lost 3 Midwest swing states by very small margins: Pennsylvania (PA: 44,292 votes), Wisconsin (WI: 22,748) & Michigan (MI:10,704 votes). These 77,744 additional votes for Trump in these 3 states (out of 136M+ nationwide: i.e. 0.06% of overall national vote) sank Hillary in the 2016 election. This time in a reversal of fortune it was Trump who came up short, losing Arizona (AZ: 10,457), Georgia (GA, 11,779), Wisconsin (WI: 20,682) & Nebraska 2nd Congressional District (NE-2: 22,091) by very slim margins. Trump lost these 4 (AZ+GA+WI+NE-2) by 65,0009 votes which is not only is smaller margin than the Hillary’s 2016 loss in terms of raw votes (65,0009 in 2020 vs 77,744 in 2016) but also as a % of overall national votes (0.04% in 2020 vs 0.06% in 2016).
Note: In theory Trump could have won the presidency if there was 269-269 tie in the Electoral College. Republicans control more state delegations (not actual seats!) in the House and thus Trump would win the tiebreaker vote in the House. Some have argued that in the end the ~42,918 votes in Arizona, Georgia & Wisconsin made the difference (i.e. excluding ~22k votes of NE-2)
Presidential Election Results
Biden popular vote% stood at 51.32% vs 46.86% for Trump which gave Biden a comfortable 4.46% win in the popular vote% margin. In the Electoral college (in an exact reversal from four years ago Biden won 306 Electoral votes to 232 for Trump) On paper the popular vote% appears remarkably similar to 2012 Obama re-election win over Republican challenger Mitt Romney (Obama 51.06% vs Romney 47.20%) but when you break it down to the states the patterns are much different from just 8 years ago.
The 2016 election cycle had seen on the presidential level a huge spike in the 3rd Party/Other Vote% at 5.7% which was the largest since Ross Perot ran as Independent (in 1992 & 96). This 5.7% in 2016 was ~3x+ the usual 1 to 1.7% that the Others got in the last few presidential elections. This time around the Others vote% at 1.8% returned to the higher end of the normal range for the past few cycles. This mean that the 3.9% of the vote which went to Others in 2016 was now “recaptured” by the 2 mainstream parties. Biden by grabbing the lion’s share (~4/5) of this “returning” 3.9% vote% widened Hillary’s popular vote% lead from ~2.10% in 2016 to 4.46% in 2020.
Many pollsters had dismissed the notion of Trump widening his base in 2020 but Trump did manage to slightly increase his popular vote% from 46.1% to 46.9%. However, Trump’s 0.8% increase in popular vote% was dwarfed by 3.1% increase in Biden’s popular vote%.
Looking on a state level barring a handful of states (Arkansas, California, D.C., Florida, Illinois, Hawaii, Nevada & Utah) on a net popular vote % margin (i.e. Dem vote % – Rep vote%) most of states moved towards Biden by varying margins.
In 2016 Trump had won the 3 pivotal Midwestern states of Michigan, Wisconsin & Pennsylvania by very slim margins. But interestingly he did not carry any of these states by a plurality of the vote (i.e. 50+% of the vote)
As seen nationally the 3rd party/Other votes which was around 4 to 6% in 2016 shrunk to 1 to 2% range in 2020. Trump did marginally increase his vote% in MI, PA & WI by ~+0.3%, 0.6% & 1.6% respectively. However, as they were dwarfed in comparison by Biden’s improvement (over Hillary in 2016) of 3.4%, 2.6% & 3.0%. This net surge for Biden helped him carry all these 3 crucial swing states.
Looking on absolute vote% basis Biden managed to improve Hillary’s vote% in all 51 “electoral college areas” (i.e. 50 states + District of Columbia). Trump on the other hand did manage to grow his vote in 2/3 (i.e. 34/51) of all “electoral college areas”. But in many places, more of the 3rd party vote moved to Biden vs him.
Senate & House Election Results
Many of the election forecasters were calling for a Blue Wave scenario where not only Biden would win the presidency but also the Democrats would win back the Senate & increase their majority in the House (i.e. House of Representative).
Democrats contrary to the pollsters vastly underperformed picking up only 1 Senate seat so far. The current strength in the Senate stands at 50 Republicans (Rep) & 48 Democrats (Dem)
* Special Elections for 2 GA seats on Jan 5, 2021
The 2 Senate races in Georgia (GA) proceeded to a special election on Jan 5, 2021 to decide the fate of Senate (till next election cycle in 2022). If Democrats manage to win both the seats in GA they will force a 50-50 tie in the Senate when incoming Vice President Kamala Harris will be able to cast the tie breaking vote (i.e. advantage Dem). However, if Republicans win either one or both the seats than they will continue to control the Senate. This means that this will one of the most closely watched and hard-fought special elections in history.
The pollsters as per their polling had called for Democrats to pick up more seats in the House. However, the Democrat majority instead of expanding shrunk in the election cycle. Democrats have so far lost 10 seats in the House (1 seat: NY-22 remains uncalled. If D candidate loses this seat the net loss will rise to 11 seats)
*** NY-22 seat is now stuck in dispute/litigation
With 218 required for majority (in a total House strength of 435) Democrats now only enjoy a slim 4 seat majority (possibly 5 depending how NY-22 breaks). 2018 had been a Blue Wave where Democrats picked 40+ seats on the wave to regaining a majority in the House. But in 2020 with Trump on the ticket they were not able to hold on the massive gains from a couple of years ago.
How Biden Won & Trump Lost the Election
Post-election Trump has made some bizarre and mostly unfounded claims (almost no court has ruled in his favor so far to overturn the results) that massive fraud in the cities (which tilt heavily Democratic) cost him the election. But evidence actually shows that he did same or even better (vs 2016) in terms of net margin in the major cities out in the Midwest. There have been a slew of articles (#1 , #2 , #3) since Nov 3 trying to figure out why Biden didn’t do better vs Hillary in these heavily Democratic cities which are in many cases predominantly non-white. The problem for Trump seems to have been that there was a lot of hemorrhaging of votes in the suburbs particularly among college educated voters away from Trump. A fantastic chart below from The Upshot (New York Times) shows how overwhelming majority of suburban counties shifted towards Biden.
Trump did gain in the rural areas and exurbs where he did run up the % margins but there are fewer people in these areas to begin with. The big losses in the suburbs were in the end too much to overcome given that he had won these swing states by razor thin margins in 2016 (i.e. very little buffer from just 4 years ago)
A case in example for this suburban shift away from Trump is seen from the WOW counties of Wisconsin as seen in chart below by Craig Gilbert (Washington Bureau Chief for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). These 3 suburban counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee & Washington) were once heavily Republican but over the past 2 cycles have drifted to the left (i.e. towards Democrats)
Another example is Pennsylvania where out of the 24 largest counties only 1 Philadelphia (which is heavily Democratic mind you) swung towards Trump while the remaining ones (man of which are suburban swung towards Biden)
The reading from the exit polls in terms of demographics makes for some fascinating reading.
Trump did increase his support among all categories of non-white voters. While Biden (Democrats) still enjoy vast advantages with Black, Latinos & Asians, Trump narrowed the gap (vs 2016) by 6%, 5% & 11% respectively. Trump did lose 3% of the white vote to Biden which in the end would make the difference between winning and losing.
As per estimates roughly 70% of the US population is white so even a small loss in white vote can’t be overcome unless there is a significant shift in the remaining 30% non-white vote. This 3% shift in the white vote from Trump to Biden sealed Trump’s fate as a 5-10% increase in non-white vote never replace the lost votes from white voters.
Trump ability to court the non-college educated white male voters in droves during the last election has been written about a lot as one of the reasons for his victory.
While Trump did again win non college white men by a massive 42%, he did slip by 6% vs 2016. The huge losses among the college educated voters is what caused his big slippage in the suburbs mostly populated with college educated voters. Among white women (with college degree) Hillary already had a lead and Biden expanded it by 2 more points to +9% advantage. Biden almost erased Trump’s big 14% lead with (college degree) men by whittling it down to a mere 3% advantage for Trump.
Trump’s support declined among 3 of the 4 age categories: 18-29, 45-64 & 65+. Older adult voters (45-64) & Seniors (65+) who are reliable voters (unlike 18-29 where voter participation rates are much lower) and who were once considered as solid Republican block also slightly shifted away from Trump. Some of this has been attributed to Trump’s mishandling of the Coronavirus pandemic which has dipropionate affected elders in terms of deaths and hospitalizations. Young adults (18-24) for all the hoopla in the news of them voting in record numbers still accounted for just 9% of the electorate (as per Edison Research) which was unchanged from 2016. The over 65 crowd increasing from 20 to 22% of the overall electorate coupled with the small shift away from Trump meant that this change (however small it maybe) contributed to Trump’s defeat.
Prior to the elections many in the Democrat party including Nancy Pelosi were openly speaking about an expanded majority in the House and them setting the agenda (with a Biden win) going forward. However, to their shock they lost double digit seats (10) and have a slim 4 seat majority. This can be at risk if there are special elections due to D members resigning to join Biden cabinet, or resign due to personal reasons, health issues, scandals or die in office and the Rep candidates manage to win in special elections in these congressional districts.
The polling in the House races was far worse than on the Presidential level where Republicans are winning 26/27 toss up seats with NY-22 pending (as per the Cook Political Report) and won 7 of the 36 seats that were either leaning or likely Democrats.
Unlike the 17 seat majority post 2018 elections where left of center agenda could be pushed without having to placate the moderates in swing districts Pelosi will need to count upon almost all the folks in both the progressive and moderate wings of the party.
In the House the Rep candidates overperformed Trump by 0.89% (in terms of popular vote%) while the Dem underperformed Biden by 0.52%. The underperformance by House Democrats in Congress was something that had been reported even prior to the election.
NOTE: This is more impressive given the fact that there were 27 uncontested seats in the House (19 Democrat & 8 Republican wins) seats where there was no opponent from the other mainstream party. Hence the absence of Rep votes in 19 seats (vs just 8 for Dems) would make the true House vote% much closer than the actual 3.06%
Democrats flipped 3 seats: 2 in newly drawn districts in North Carolina mandated by the courts (which was highly likely) & GA-7 a suburban seat in Georgia (a state which Biden flipped in the electoral college). Republicans on the other hand have flipped 13 seats so far (14 possibly if NY-22 comes through) for a net gain of 10 seats. 3 of these gains came in the rock-solid blue state of California where Republicans gained seats for the 1st time since the middle of 90s decade when the state was far more competitive for GOP (Republicans) than it’s today. During the 2018 cycle the number of House Republicans in California was cut in half from 14 to 7 giving he Republicans the lowest ever representation from California since 1946. Republicans also won seats back in suburbs/exurbs of Utah, Iowa, New Mexico, Minnesota, South Carolina, etc. These were seats that they lost in 2018 Blue wave election which now were won back by the GOP (Republicans). Not a single incumbent Republican Congressmen who ran lost his/her election on Nov 3.
After the 2018 debacle where the Democrat party swept in power in the House picking up 40 seats, GOP did a post-mortem of the election. During this they discovered that Democrats had nominated a lot of women and minority candidates which helped them broaden their coalition. The 2018 incoming freshmen class had record number of women who were sworn into office during the 116th Congress. GOP accounted for a paltry 1 out of the 36 freshmen women in the House of Representatives. Republicans knew that with vast majority of their members serving in the Congress being mostly white/male they needed to recruit more diverse pool of candidates to widen their appeal among swing voters. GOP set about looking to recruit more women candidates to run in 2020 and this effort paid off as a record number of Republican women won their primaries.
Of the 13 seats that were flipped by Republicans all but one (i.e. 12/13) were won by a candidate that was either a woman and/or a minority.
Note: If NY-22 breaks for GOP it would make it 13/14
Half a dozen of these flips (by Republicans in the House) was by candidates that outran Trump (i.e. got more vote% vs Trump). They won their seats in a district where Biden got more votes than Trump. This is no mean given the fact that the number of split districts (i.e. voting differently at the Presidential level and at the House level) is at an historic all-time low of 16: 9 Biden/Rep districts and 7 Trump/Dem districts.
From the results it appears that the Blue wave which appeared in 2018 during the mid-term elections has abated during 2020 with more of a “reversion to the mean”. Not only Democrats lost seats in the house but also lost 179 seats at the state legislature level. The anger against Trump amongst several voters in 2018 when he was not in the ballot crystallized in a big backlash against the Republican party which lost 40 seats in the House. Come 2020 these voters who were still mad got an opportunity to vote him out of office. However, many of these voters who did vote Republican in many previous cycles while voting for Biden down ballot voted for the Republican candidate in Congress.
A microcosm of this effect where the voters rejected Trump but voted for down ballot Republican was in Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district. Nebraska along with Maine allocates some electoral votes for getting the most votes in each electoral district.
Trump had won Nebraska 2nd district in 2016 by 2.2% but in 2020 lost it by 6.5% margin (a swing against him of ~8.8%) This suburban district like many others nationwide saw them move to the left in 2020. Don Bacon, the Republican candidate for House did do much better than Trump and was re-elected with over 50% of the vote.
Comparing the total votes gotten by all candidates in House races vs what Trump/Biden got, we can clearly see the Trump underperformance vs Republican House candidates & the Biden overperformance vs Democratic House candidates.
While Biden beat Trump in the Electoral College (E.C.) in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania & Wisconsin by 0.3%, 0.2%, 1.2% & 0.6% respectively the GOP House candidates in these states aggregated +0.3%, +2.0%, +1.2% & +2.9% more votes than their Dem. counterparts. Only in Michigan did the Democratic House candidates get more votes than Republican candidates (like Biden vs Trump). So, in theory if Trump polled as good as the GOP House candidates (combined), he would have easily won re-election: winning AZ, GA, PA & WI to get 289 electoral votes (in theory).
The census is done on decennial basis in years ending in “0”. Once the census is done the seats are reallocated based on the changes in population in all states. The states get to redraw district boundaries as per the new allocation of seats. In many states the process is controlled by state legislatures who conveniently draw up districts which make it easy for them to win and very hard for the opponent to win those new formed districts. This process of manipulating the districts to one’s advantage is called gerrymandering which political parties do it without any qualms.
The 2020 election was not only crucial for the Democrats to get rid of Trump which they did but also to do well in the state legislatures where the controlling power to draw these “partisan” districts lies at. They needed to try to channel the anger against Trump into getting votes for down ballot races. Last time the redistricting was done was after the 2010 midterm elections. During the 1st midterm after Obama was elected as part of the Tea Party backlash, they lost control of several legislatures and with that a say in how districts were drawn.
Hence it was doubly important to do well down ballot but on Nov 3 not a single legislature changed hands meaning Democrats are now stuck to being on the sidelines in many states for another decade. Republicans have won all the key contests in 2020 and now get to control redistricting of 188 House seats (~43%) while Democrats can only control 73 seats (~17%). Note: The rest are controlled by independent commissions or are divided among both parties.
The president’s party has always lost seats in the midterm elections a trend which stretches back decades (2002 was an exception as it happened in aftermath of 9/11)
On an average as per fivethirtyeight.com the incumbent president’s party has lost around 20+ seats in the midterms.
So 2022 could see a trifecta of events converging on the Democrats:
1) Historical trend of Incumbent president losing seats in the midterm
2) Getting squeezed by Republicans via redistricting in many red/purple states
3) Slim 4-5 seat majority in the House post 2020 elections
This means that barring a major unforeseen event Republicans will take back control of the House in 2022.
Takeaways from the 2020 Elections:
College educated/Suburban voters’ defection from Republican Party
The GOP losses in the Electoral College in Georgia and Arizona should not be surprising. These states in the Sunbelt (Arizona/Georgia/North Carolina etc.) which were once solidly Republican just a few cycles ago are now swing states. They have changed demographically and are becoming more diverse in terms of both race and education. Many of these states has seen a large influx of people moving from the urban coastal states/cities. Republicans can’t take these states for granted thinking that once Trump is gone, they will simply “revert to mean” and continue to vote solidly for Republican candidate in the future. The last 2 elections under Trump has accelerated the trend of college educated folks moving from the Republican to the Democrat Party. States like Georgia and Arizona which Biden was able to flip had a very large metropolitan urban area (Phoenix, AZ & Atlanta, GA) with an ever-growing suburban population. The growth in suburban population in many states across the country presents a challenge for the Republicans. As their numbers continue to grow bigger and their weightage as percentage of the overall voter base becomes bigger, they will wield more power to dictate the outcome of future elections. There has been no discernable big shift towards the Republican party in the big cities. Trump did run up the margins in the rural areas but at this point there are not that many raw votes that are still out there among the remaining non-voters that can be extracted to offset these losses in the suburbs.
With increasing digitization, automation and technological innovation (some of which have been accelerated by the current pandemic) the number of jobs held by college graduates as a percentage of the overall workforce is bound to increase. Republicans going forward can’t simply rely on turning out an even larger percentage of a shrinking demographic of white non college educated voters. Recently HPE & Oracle are among a few companies that have decided to move to Texas. This means that even red states like Texas with an influx of young college educated voters combined with changing demographic trends of increasing nonwhite population become more competitive down the road. Once Texas goes blue it will be very hard for Republicans to get to 270 unless they sweep all the states in the Rust Belt and some more which is a tall order if not impossible. So, unless the Republican Party adapts where it could bring along more suburban and highly educated voters into its fold it could be looking at a bleak future in the electoral college in the future cycles.
Trump wore out his welcome in no time with his constant making up stuff to suit his narrative and not caring about the facts or reality. He constantly picked up fights with all his detractors irrespective of the fact that whether his opponent or he himself was at fault. Trump often relished his verbal jousting with his critics in media, Democratic party, world leaders, etc. which brought him more attention something which he craved for. Trump was liked by some for his political correctness to call a spade a spade and not backing down from taking on anyone who disagreed with him. But now with his eccentric behavior which many viewed as unbecoming of a President especially during the coronavirus pandemic crisis some voters now couldn’t wait to get rid of him. He alienated just enough of the voters to cause his defeat in the electoral college come 2020.
Since the margin of his defeat in 2020 was very narrow (~65k votes) some are believing that they could simply “run it back” with the same strategy in 2024 and have a different outcome. Some have argued that either Trump could run again in 2024 or have someone like Trump nominated for 2024. The electorate becoming more diverse demographically with more college educated in some swing states means that Republican Party would have to look past Trump for 2024. The Trump brand had become too toxic for many voters and they voted against him even though they were not too enthusiastic about Biden either. As the results in the House showed that it is not a complete lost cause for Republicans where they did much better. The challenge for the next Republican candidate going forward will be to keep the Trump hardcore supporters flock together while attracting some of the suburban college educated crowd which is easier said than done. He could share certain traits that Trump had like being not politically correct, being outspoken, etc. but with a less abrasive personality who can woo back the disaffected suburban voters.
Also, on the other hand “Never Trump” folks in GOP who did not like Trump and quit the Republican Party in protest think that since Trump is defeated Republican party will simply shift back to neoconservative principles like under George W Bush. That ship has now sailed and Trump for better or worse will cast a long shadow over the future of the Republican Party. The next Republican nominee will have to straddle the Trump wing of the party while also having some appeal with the suburban college educated voter base. Failing to recapture this key segment might spell doom for the next Republican candidate for the presidency.
Changing demographics of electorate:
Trump made big in-roads with Latinos all across the US. As per Politico, Trump improved his margins in 78/100 Latino majority counties across the nation & did better in exit polls of 10 battleground states. For e.g. Trump, data shows did much better in highly Hispanic areas in Texas and poorly in college educated areas of Texas. Trump and down ballot Republicans did better with minorities in 2020 (vs 2016) due to economic growth (pre pandemic), Trump’s attempt at criminal justice reform, Democrats talk about “socialism” & big outreach by Trump campaign to woo minority voters. His appeal to the working classes in the Latino communities resonated with the voters. This did come as a shock to some Democratic supporters and critics who have called Trump as being racist.
One of the oft used commentary has been that the changing demographics of the electorate: i.e. becoming non-white means a “locked in permanent advantage” for Democrats going forward. Democrats do enjoy massive leads among these non-white groups which are not going to be overcome by Republicans any time soon no matter whoever is the candidate from the GOP. But it is a fallacy to think of these voters as staying perpetually with the Democrats forever or voting for them by the same margins as before.
Biden campaign manager and designate White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillion said (talking about the Latino vote in Texas) its “at our peril to just think of these groups as monoliths without really understanding the differences and speaking to those differences”.
Dave Wasserman (editor of the Cook Political Report) had an interesting take where he said that “It’s harder to argue the GOP coalition is demographically “dying out” after Tuesday’s results. As with past waves of immigrants throughout U.S. history, Hispanic voters are beginning to vote a little closer to the rest of the country – and it’s one possible path forward.”
As with earlier re-alignments in the past where one group moving one way is counter balanced by another group moving in opposite direction. As more college educated white suburban voters move to the left, could we possibly see more less educated non-white voters move to the right? As the electorate continues to become more non-white the voting power of this group to influence elections increases which makes it imperative for Democrats to not take them for granted and Republicans to not ignore them as a significant voting bloc.
Democratic Party: Moderates vs Progressives tensions:
On the Democratic side they did achieve their primary target of making sure that Trump was not reelected. However, they massively underperformed in the down ballot races including House, Senate & state legislature races. The loss of 10+ seats in the House brought out the divisions in the Democratic Party which ended up in a dustup among various Democratic elected members on a call shortly after the election. Rep Abigail Spanberger who is from a swing district in Virginia (Virginia’s 7th congressional district) said
“We need to not ever use the word socialist or socialism ever again, because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of that. If we are classifying Tuesday as a success from a Congressional standpoint, we will get (expletive deleted) torn apart in 2022. And excuse the profanity. (expletive deleted). That’s the reality.”
Dem House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) an outspoken member of the Progressive wing of the party in an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN defended these accusations from Spanberger saying
“If you look at some of the arguments that are being advanced, that ‘defund the police’ hurt, or that arguments about ‘socialism’ hurt — not a single member of Congress that I’m aware of campaigned on socialism or defunding the police in this general election,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “These were largely slogans, or they were demands from activist groups that we saw in the largest uprising in American history against police brutality.”
This in effect is kind of an admission that the activists have taken over the messaging of the party and they are not willing to admit that it did hurt them and that some course correction is required. Moderate Democrat House members like Rep Elissa Slotkin from Michigan’s 8th Congressional district (a district won by Trump in both 2016 & 2020 i.e. one of the few Trump-Democrat districts) bristle at the progressives telling her what to do: “You represent your district. Don’t tell me how to represent mine when you come from New York or California.” She said in an interview highlighting the schisms between both the wings of the Democratic Party.
Some Democrats have also said after Nov 3 that the term “socialist” label particularly harmed their prospects which had large number of voters who emigrated from socialist countries in Latin America and across the world. Many naturalized citizens/immigrants who moved to the USA for better prospects have had firsthand experience of “socialism” in their native countries which most of the times was highly unpleasant.
This brought about the fight between the more moderate & progressive wings of the Democrat Party. Moderates represent usually swing upscale high-income suburban type districts (which were once Republican) where dislike of Trump and to some extent Republicans has helped flip them to Democrats. Progressives are mostly representing highly partisan Democratic districts which sometimes have significant minority population and which many times are in cities and with much lower incomes. While progressives like AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashid Tlaib, etc. come from D+20 to D+30 safe Democrat districts (i.e. 20-30% net partisan lean for Dem) so they run no risk of losing to Republicans in general elections while moderates are in the swing districts often won with small margins. Hence the progressives are more open to pushing the envelope in terms of their agenda and if there is blowback they will still safely win re-election while moderates want to keep make sure that the party does not veer so much to the left that it generates a counter polarization which consigns them to defeat in the next election.
The desire to see the back of Trump in 2020 election was the primary “binding glue” of the coalition as diverse as progressive House member AOC from New York to moderate Democrat Joe Manchin from West Virginia. In the absence of Trump moving forward how this unity holds up is yet to be seen. Democrats did nominate in Biden, one of the most centrist Democratic candidate who was just able to edge out Trump in crucial swing states which should be a signal that for presidential elections an extremely progressive candidate might not do well against a strong Republican candidate.
Economic populism and social justice/culture wars:
The beating that the Republicans took in the 2018 Blue wave was no doubt accentuated by Trump not being on the top of the ticket which mean many less inclined Republican voters stayed home. But 2018 was also the year when Trump and Republicans narrowly failed to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act in Congress. “Obamacare” as how it is popularly known is now fairly popular among Americans. The move by GOP to repeal it without any substantial alternate plan (to replace it immediately upon Obamacare repeal) enraged many of the middle aged and older voters who voted against the Republican congressmen who wanted to repeal it. This ended up being one of the key issues during the 2018 midterm elections where Democrats branded the Republicans as the ones to “take away existing health care” from the voters.
The once derided and unpopular Obamacare was now part and parcel of people’s lives and they resented it being taken away is a small example of growth of economic populism seen over the last few years. While social justice movements and the culture wars accompanying it are not very popular among a portion of the electorate, economic populism or economic progressive measures are popular.
A case in point is the outcome of two propositions (one social, one economic) on the two opposite coasts on USA s which had very different outcomes: Proposition 16 in California and Amendment 2 in Florida.
A yes vote on Proposition 16 in California would have removed the ban on affirmative action involving race-based or sex-based preferences from the California Constitution. During the mid-1990’s California passed a measure that banned government institutions from using race, sex, gender or ethnicity while deciding public employment or in public education (government jobs, college admissions, etc.). Social justice activists wanted this ban removed so minorities could be given more preference in government hiring and college admission while critics opposed it saying this would mean a sort of “discrimination” against other groups with a sort of “soft reservation” for certain minority groups.
Amendment 2 in Florida looked to raise the minimum wage in Florida to 15$/hour in a 6-year time span. Businesses had opposed it saying that it would kill jobs due to higher labor costs imposed on them while workers/unions pushed for it as it would help raise their living standards with higher incomes.
In theory given that California is a deep blue state (Biden won by 30+% margin) while Florida leans slightly red (Trump won by 2%) would lead one to believe that Proposition 16 supported by many on the left would pass in California while Amendment 2 which was opposed by many on the right in Florida would fail. What ended up happening on Nov 3 was exactly the opposite: Proposition 16 failed to pass in California while Amendment 2 passed in Florida.
Proposition 16 failed to pass in California (YES 43% NO 57%) by a big margin. Considering that Biden got 63% of the presidential vote, YES vote on Prop 16 underperformed Biden by a massive 20% which shows that a large chunk of Democrats opposed this social reform.
Amendment 2 passed in Florida (YES 61% NO 39%) by a vast margin. Considering that Trump got 51% of the presidential vote, NO vote on Amendment 2 underperformed Trump by a big 12% which shows that a sizable chunk of Republican voters supported this economic reform.
These two amendments are a good microcosm of the country today which is mostly progressive on economic issues while bit socially conservative on certain social justice issues.
The death of George Floyd over the summer galvanized the Democratic activists & voters on the ground with a series of protests. But the Democrat party messaging went a bit awry where it was taken over by the activists on the ground. From then on Democrat politicians struggled to regain control over the messaging part especially over the summer and fall months as the protests continued and in certain places violence and looting which followed these once peaceful protests. Republicans including Trump made a lot of efforts to stereotype the Democrats to portray them as anti-police. Looking back at the polls interestingly in the aftermath of these protests when Trump was struggling to address these events properly was also when he was at his nadir in the polling data. Post-election even prominent African American (Dem) Congressmen and House Majority Whip James Clyburn admitted in an interview with “Defund the Police is killing our party”. He mentioned that both former civil rights leader John Lewis & he were “very concerned” when the slogan came out. Even Democratic candidates like Cameron Webb who lost the VA-5 seat by ~5% points said on a Democrat conference call that “My opponent only talked about three words: Defund the police,” which highlights the problems that many Democrats had with the slogan during this campaign.
For better or worse the progressive side of the party has been the most vocal part of the Democratic Party. Their slogans which resonate with voters in highly democratic friendly cities and on the coasts loses their appeal in the slightly more conservative suburbs. David Shor, a Democratic polling and data expert who developed the Obama 2012 campaign’s internal election-forecasting system said in an interview
“There is a broader trend, though, that as college-educated white people become a larger share of the Democratic coalition and a larger share of the Democratic voice, they do pull the party on cultural issues. Non-college educated white people have more culturally in common with working-class Black and working-class Hispanic voters. So, it should be unsurprising that as the cultural power of college-educated white people increases in the Democratic Party, non-white voters will move against us.”
The far-left wing of the party in its zeal for ideological purity has stamped many contrary views and is not welcoming of diverse opinions on subjects it considers as sacrosanct. Topics on which people talked about freely in the past now they hesitate to speak up on as they fear offending someone in this climate of hyper political correctness. Even Dem Rep Elisa Slotkin has admitted on record “I remember, long before literally Donald Trump was even a twinkle in our eye, the way that people in my life here couldn’t stand political correctness.” Democrat party which has prided itself is calling itself the party of inclusion and diversity now some feel is not inclusive of their differing points of view. They fear being exiled (if not blackballed) by those on the left for holding differing views. Former president (and some who is held in very high regard in Democratic circles) Barack Obama said last year that it was time to get over the so called “cancel culture”. He added “This idea of purity, and you’re never compromised, and you’re politically woke, and all that stuff — you should get over that quickly…. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”
Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang noted “In their minds the Democratic party unfortunately has taken on this role of the coastal urban elites who are more concerned about policing various cultural issues than improving their way of life.” Political scientist and co-author of book “The Emerging Democratic Majority” Rudy Teixeira said in an interview “I don’t think there’s any doubt that wokeness, and the issues around that, helped brand the Democratic Party. The Democrats spent three months with a discourse dominated by the protests around George Floyd, racial justice and so on, culminating in the defund-and-abolish-the-police movement, which was basically of very little interest to the median voter. To the extent that the Democrats are identified with that rhetoric—from language-policing to terming the U.S. a White-supremacist society—the less able the party is to appeal to working-class voters of all races and moderate voters in general”. Teixeira makes an excellent point where he says that cultural issues might excite the people of the hard left but it is not a point that connects with the median working class swing voter.
The centrists Democrats many of whom either lost in 2020 or were narrowly re-elected see the danger from the progressives pushing the party too far to the left with its big focus on cultural issues. The centrists/moderates are more focused on pushing economic reforms to speed up economic growth, reduce income inequality, improve health care etc., improve chances for upward mobility, etc. i.e. issues which connect with the swing suburban voter (vs social & cultural issues that progressives want to push along). Whether the Democratic party can continue to grow from here or if there is churn from the Democrats towards the Republicans in a form of re-alignment only time will tell. This all depends on whether there is some sort of working level compromise or a “civil war” between both the wings of the Democratic party.
Trump did manage to win in the Electoral College in 2016 while losing the popular vote 2.2%. Biden widened the gap this time to 4.5% which made winning the Electoral college near impossible for Trump (even though he came with ~65k votes of doing so). Looking at the past 6 election cycles in this century (2000 to 2020) we have had 3 Democratic wins and 3 Republican wins in the Electoral College.
The average popular vote% for Dems in losses (2000, 2004 & 2016) has been 48.3% while in wins (2008, 2012 & 2020) it is 51.8%. The average popular vote% for Republicans in wins (2000, 2004 & 2016) has been 48.3% while in losses (2008, 2012 & 2020) it has been 46.6%. So, it appears that 95% of the popular vote (i.e. Rep loss avg + Dem loss avg) is kind of locked in especially given the high degree of polarization seen in today’s politics. One can add an average 1.5 to 2% for the 3rd parties/Ohers. This leaves the remaining 3 to 3.5% up for grabs which will decide the outcome of elections in the future. Democrat candidates do seem to have a 2 to 3% “default” advantage in the popular vote%. Once the Democrat has a 4% delta in the popular vote it becomes near impossible to defeat him. The Republican candidate’s appeal to has to ensure that he can capture the vast majority of this remaining vote (or make sure it goes to 3rd parties like 2016) so that he can remain in the game or else it would be curtains for him/her. If the Republican can keep the popular vote% delta (vs Dem) in 3 to 3.5% (preferably between <3%) than he can stand a chance of winning.
The Republican candidate will have one advantage with reallocation of electoral votes post the 2020 census. As per 2020 results Republicans will gain 5-6 electoral votes in the electoral college based on gains in population by the states won by Trump (mostly Texas and Florida). This means that current 306 electoral vote advantage for Democrats will be potentially down to 300 by 2024.
Trump became only the 2nd Republican candidate ever (after Richard Nixon in 1960) to win both Ohio and Florida and still lose the presidency. Florida which has been in the spotlight since hotly contested 2000 election has always tended to be in the “too close to call” category. Florida now appears to lean slightly towards the Republicans and might not be a true tossup state going forward. Ohio which was in tossup category has now cemented its place as being a Republican stronghold. Colorado and Virginia which were tossup just a few cycles ago are now solidly blue with the influx of college educated voters in those states. The new swing states now appear to be Wisconsin & Pennsylvania in the Rust Belt plus the Sun Belt states of Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina. 18/19 bellwether counties as many have pointed out failed to correctly predict the winner in 2020. This means that the traditional bellwethers have changed (just like the states) and new ones will be discovered soon which are more representative of the electorate out there.
The political landscape across USA is undergoing a sea change in all dimensions. Everywhere you look things are in flux, all the way from the two parties’ coalitions, demographics, etc. to bellwether states and districts.
The last two elections have solidified the Republicans hold over rural areas while the Democrats retain their strength in the cities. This makes the suburban (likely highly educated) voter as the new swing voter of American electoral politics. While the electorate becoming more diverse demographically means advantage on paper for Democrats. But “demography as destiny” as the popular saying goes might not be necessarily true. This does not confer Democrats with a permanent advantage for them as people of color don’t vote one way as a uniform monolith. Could the non-white groups of voters now start to vote like white voters which tend to vote by levels of their education and/or income? The broad and diverse coalition of the Democrats brings with the necessity to tailor the strategy to adjust for various classes and races. The absence of Trump in 2022 and beyond will make it easier for Republicans to bring back some of these voters turned off by Trump since 2016.
This was no “wave” election for either party and both the coalitions are in flux. The Democrats considering the underperformance in down ballot races should not consider this new Biden coalition of theirs as permanent going forward (i.e. appears to be a “loose” coalition open to possible poaching by the Republicans). The Republicans on the other hand need to find a candidate who can win back the ancestral suburban highly educated voters while holding on to the Trump base and look to make bigger inroads with nonwhite voters. Both parties have challenges on their hand on wooing these suburban voters on a long-term basis. These suburban swing voters will play a pivotal role in deciding the fortunes of Republican and Democratic Parties in the coming years.